Bay Bridge lights up San Francisco like never before

The Bay Bridge in San Francisco with its new look, courtesy of Philips Color Kinetics.
The Bay Bridge in San Francisco with its new look, courtesy of Philips Color Kinetics.
Philips LED Technology

Waves of rippling light are casting the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in a bright new glow — a wash of abstract, sparkling patterns illuminating the gritty span long overshadowed by the famous Golden Gate Bridge less than 20 miles away.

A new installation of 25,000 white LED lights, choreographed by computer, weaves art, technology, and public space together into a canvas for dancing sequences that never repeat.

The display, dubbed “The Bay Lights” and billed as the “world’s largest LED light sculpture,” was developed by Burlington-based Philips Color Kinetics — the same company that vividly transformed the Zakim Bridge last year and recently relit the Empire State Building in New York.

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“The Bay Bridge has such a history of being the ugly stepchild to the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Philip O’Donnell, senior director of lighting systems at Philips Color Kinetics. “And that’s a very different dynamic now.”

The project lit up San Francisco for this first time this week and will continue to illuminate the 1.8-mile bridge every night from dusk to 2 a.m for at least the next two years, costing just $30 a day due to energy-saving technology.

Each light node can be controlled remotely and individually, while algorithms enable the system to constantly recombine itself in mesmerizing arrangements. “People will be obsessed, they’ll be staring at it,” O’Donnell boasted.

The project, a tribute to the bridge’s 75th anniversary, is the brainchild of Ben Davis, a native of Boston’s South End who is chairman of the California nonprofit Illuminate the Arts. Davis said the work of his father, former Massachusetts Port Authority executive director Dave Davis, was an inspiration to his work.

“I think of this work out in California as a continuation, in some ways, of his legacy reforming public infrastructure,” Davis said of his father, who died last November. “It's why I dedicated a light to him. For me, he’s up there on that bridge now.”

For a $50 contribution to the project, Davis named one of the LEDs after his father, and he encourages others to make similar donations. The fund-raising initiative, called “giving the gift of light,” lets donors name lights, for themselves or in memory of others, to help pay for the project.

So far, organizers have raised $6 million of the $8 million in needed private donations — including contributions from tech industry leaders such as Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail.

Normally, a project of this scale would be more expensive to operate, but planners said the LED system uses 85 percent less energy than traditional technologies. Moreover, the power it does use will be offset by donated solar credits.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he expects the installation to pay for itself, bringing in an estimated 50 million visitors and at least $97 million to the local economy.

“It’s kind of like our Eiffel Tower of the night now,” said Lee, who was excited about the project’s potential to bring the Super Bowl or even the Olympics to his city. “That bridge has been dark at night, but now there’s this dazzling, bold art piece people want to come here to see. My daughter is getting married in October and already she told me, ‘I need a wedding picture with that in the backdrop.’ ”

After Davis came up with the idea, he commissioned artist Leo Villareal — known for his large-scale light structures, including one in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York — to bring the installation to life.

Villareal developed custom-made software and labored over mathematical formulas to reflect the movement of things like water, traffic, and clouds in the piece, but said instead of working to “see something” in his art, he hopes viewers will take just pleasure in spending time with it.

“My goal is for people to come and see it, but instead of feeling like they’re missing something, to just relax and be with it,” he said. “You don’t need to know anything about art history or computer programming or technology to understand the universal quality of light.”

Villareal said he wanted to get his art “off the wall and into the world” in a public place where it can serve as a backdrop for conversation and interaction. “This thing is really what I like to call a digital campfire,” said Villareal. “There’s this hypnotic quality about light that lets us build community by introducing it as a large-scale element to city. It’s a sudden focal point for people who otherwise would have never talked to each other.”